I just found an hour I didn't think I'd have until tomorrow,
so here goes...
This is the first in a series of posts I'll be making on effective scenario planning. Each will be devoted to a particular characteristic/attribute of the process as I've practiced it sine the early '90s. Some of the points, (and particularly this first one: diverse inputs), will sound familiar to those who've done scenarios. Others will not. For those familiar with the 'classic' Shell approach, the GBN approach, and/or the spreadsheet-driven variety (scenarios in name only), this stuff - in sum - is quite different. These posts will not be a how-to manual, but rather a list of the 'must-haves' for scenarios to be effective and impactful especially in large organizations, at more than the "oh, that's interesting" level of intellectual titillation. I.e., thinking big thoughts for the main purpose feeling good about having done so.
Many planning exercises - scenario-based or otherwise - give lip service to this issue. Oh, we're really thinking outside the box this time. Really. We're talking to people in both R&D and sales. Republicans and Democrats. We've got two people from Europe, several women(!) and even someone from Asia-Pacific! (As if a vast region of the globe were a tidy little restaurant buffet.)
Isn't that nice. Isn't that exotic and enlightened.
No. It is tagging bases.
Robust scenario planning involves actively seeking perspectives that seem heretical (we can't do that here!), that were once seen as visionary but have been rejected as unsuited to conditions in the past, (they may simply have been before their time), and that are simply at odds with established industry 'rules', (the breaking of which can sometimes yield spectacular opportunity.)
I'm talking here not about the diversity of thinking involved in building scenarios (though that's important too), but about how, where and what kind of information is gathered initially - the raw material from which scenarios are eventually constructed.
Diversity is a tough thing to quantify for two reasons. First, because as the previous strawman example highlights, diversity of geography, gender, race, corporate function etc. isn't all it's made out to be when filtered through the hiring and enculturation process of a major global organization, e.g., education, training and career-oriented personalities. Even as such mainstream views are critically important, outside views are critical to breakthroughs. Second, and on the other hand, diversity can easily grade over into silliness, becoming an end in itself. The trick is finding people who have some knowledge or and/or relevance to the subject at hand, but who are not so far afield as to pull the exercise into the realm of pure fantasy.
'Good' diversity involves both quantitative and qualitative inputs. Too often, scenarios are biased heavily in one direction or the other: in the first case, the "plus or minus ten percent" or "historical determinism" problem, or in the second case the "wouldn't it be cool if" variety - unmoored from basic economics or other hard short-term realities of industry structure or dynamics. (This is why very long term scenarios, e.g., 10+ years out) are seldom useful outside of the arena of geopolitical strategy and/or capital intensive industries.)
'Good' diversity is hard to define in the same sense as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famous quip about obscenity: "I know it when I see it". I.e., are new, relevant ideas for thinking about the future emerging from each new interview or source? To be sure, information gathering to fuel a scenario planning process is not an endless hunt for new ideas. But once similar memes have come up over and over again, it's time to tap a new vein - or stop.
I often like to advise clients that we're looking for input from "a diagonal cross section" of the organization. That means different functional areas, different business units and different levels of authority/tenure. This last point often gets missed. Senior folks are a given, but what are the new recruits (old or young) thinking? As an old mentor used to say, "most of what one is able to contribute to an organization comes in one's first six months when perspectives are still fresh." What are younger people thinking about the organization and the challenges it faces? Often they have very different cultural lenses, a different sense of the employment contract, and a different (if instinctual) awareness of how and where technology may impact the industry's future.
In addition to the diagonal cut, there are the "wild ducks", wherever they sit. (The term is borrowed from IBM, where it has always meant the 'out of box thinkers' who don't fit the IBM corporate mold.) Then there's the need to talk to at least one representative individual from each major constituency outside the organization. I.e., customers, suppliers, partners, labor unions, regulators, academics, industry analysts, Wall Street analysts and even sometimes, competitors. The list is not exhaustive, (nor is it necessary to talk to every one of these), but an hour of input from each can do more to 'ventilate' the scenario process than ten internal interviews with folks who've been around forever.
That's all for now. More on subsequent topics in coming days.
UPDATE: One thing I failed to mention yesterday is the desirability of collecting both general holistic impressions about possible futures (visionary, directional), as well as thoughts about specific illustrative or enabling milestones on the road to one or more future states. Too often, scenario exercises focus on one at the expense of the other... i.e., the pile of bricks without the architecture for what they might add up to, or conversely the airy architectural concepts devoid of specifics about whether the building could actually stand.